5 Reasons Wild-Caught Fish Isn’t Always the Best Choice (But Sustainable Aquaculture Might Be)

sustainable aquaculture

We’ve been told time and time again that the most sustainable, healthiest seafood choice is wild-caught fish, but times are changing: as the world’s wild fish populations deplete at an ever-growing pace, strides are being made in the world of fish farming, and today, sustainable aquaculture is the way to go.

Don’t believe us? Here are five great reasons to choose (sustainable!) farmed fish instead of wild.

1. We’ve learned from our mistakes.

Our preconceived notions about farmed fish being a less sustainable, less healthy alternative didn’t come from nowhere. Jacqueline Claudia, LoveTheWild’s co-founder and CEO, notes that while aquaculture has been around since ancient China, the first commercial scale aquaculture in the U.S., which was developed in the 1970s, “was pretty ugly by many accounts.”

“It spawned the enduring negative perceptions of aquaculture: overcrowding, reliance on wild fish for feed, disease and antibiotic use, poor quality fish, and environmental devastation,” she says.

Doesn’t sound like a pretty picture, does it? Luckily, sustainable aquaculture today has progressed leaps and bounds.

Overcrowding is one great example: while fish naturally crowd and school together in the great wide ocean – and can even get ill when they are not able to exhibit this natural behavior – early fish farms nonetheless had problems linked to overcrowding, such as low oxygen and excessive waste.

“Today, science has led to deeper understanding of optimal stocking densities of a given system, and most salmon farms operate around a maximum of 15kg/square meter (about a third of historical levels),” explains Claudia. “To put this in perspective, some modern aquaculture like that at Pacifico Striped Bass operates pens that are 98% water and 2% fish.”

Another major change in the aquaculture industry is the way in which farmers approach and treat disease.

“The one thing that a lot of people are working on are new diagnostics that will help to both identify diseases early on as well as to prevent diseases,” says Monica Jain, Founder and Executive Director of Fish 2.0, who notes the presence of a new trend in sustainable aquaculture. “People are creating products that make the fish stock, the farmed fish healthier rather than trying to treat diseases after they start.”

2. Sustainable aquaculture is better for the environment.

If you’ve been following the aquaculture industry for a while, this might come as a surprise. After all, early aquaculture systems could be quite detrimental to the environment, mostly because of location choices.

“In those early commercial fish farms, pens were back to back in fjords and other areas with bad water movement and operated continuously,” notes Claudia. “Today we have complex models that take into account currents, temperatures, weather patterns, etc to help site pens to appropriately minimize environmental impact.”

Wild fishing, on the other hand, is detrimental to the environment in a myriad of ways, specifically overfishing, which EnvironmentalScience.org calls “a primary cause of ecosystem collapse in many aquatic systems.”

Other environmental effects of fish farming include the destruction of aquatic habitat due to dredging, which turns up sediment, decreasing water quality and digging up necessary burrowing worms from the ocean floor, throwing the delicate ecosystem off balance.

3. Bycatch is still prevalent in the world of wild fisheries.

Bycatch is a common problem in wild fisheries due to unsavory and unethical fishing methods, especially in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam where fishing is often not as highly regulated.

“Fishing gear can be devastating to marine mammals, turtles, etc,” says Claudia. “It is very hard to regulate, especially in the developing countries where a lot of our wild fish is caught.”

While advances in both gear types and legislation protecting unintended bycatch have brought about great strides in recent years, the fact is that most fisheries do still have problems with unintended bycatch, often amounting to up to half of the fish cost.

According to a February letter written by Kate O’Connell of the Animal Welfare Institute and Friederike Kreme-Obrock of Sharkproject Germany to the Marine Stewardship Council, more than 650,000 marine mammals and millions of sharks die every year as a result of bycatch.

4. Contamination is more prevalent in wild fish.

Wild-caught seems synonymous with a cleaner, purer, more natural product, but unfortunately these days, that association is all in our heads.

“Most people choose wild fish because they think it is ‘cleaner’ than farmed fish,” says Claudia. “But sadly that’s no longer true.”

Wild seafood is often contaminated with dangerous compounds due to pollution. Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D., writes for Mayo Clinic that over the past several decades, “concerns have arisen about the effects heavy metal contaminants (such as mercury), pollutants (such as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs), pesticides, fertilizers and even trash have on the safety of water and fish.”

When farmed fish are fed smaller wild fish, these contamination problems are present in aquaculture, too. But strides that have been made in creating sustainable, healthier sources of feed for farmed fish have shifted the balance.

“With farmed fish, you control the feed, and can produce fish free of those contaminants,” says Claudia.

In addition, farmed fish are less likely to contain parasites, as one horrifying tale recently published on Vice Munchies reveals. According to the report, nearly all wild fish contains parasites or worms, but farmed fish, which are not only segregated from these parasites by virtue of their living situation but are also fed pellets that are treated for parasites, are immune: a Danish study comparing wild and farmed fish found that some wild species had a whopping 90 percent infection rate of a particular type of parasite known as nematodes, while farmed fish had none at all.

5. We have more of it.

Wild-caught fish is an amazing resource, but as the world’s population grow – and our hunger for fish grows with it – wild fish stocks are rapidly depleting. A team of marine scientists from Dalhousie University found in 2006 that if current fishing practices continue, the world’s major fish populations will become effectively extinct within the next 30 years.

“Globally we will continue to eat more and more seafood, and yet it is crystal clear that natural resources cannot provide that growing demand,” says Andrew Beebe from Obvious Ventures. “We have no choice but to make farmed fish a healthy reality alternative.”

Of course, choosing sustainable farmed fish requires a bit of homework. Be sure to check a sustainable fish app like Seafood Watch to ensure that you’re making smart, ethical, sustainable farmed fish purchases and that you’re supporting the burgeoning industry of sustainable aquaculture.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco